italian easter bread

It’s hard to believe that just a year ago we felt complete and normal. I’ve tried to find the words to start this post for a week now. Nothing flows freely from my fingertips, but I wanted to share this recipe for Easter Bread with you. I hadn’t realized how close we were to Easter until I went to the local pastry shop with Virginia last week. Lamb-shaped cakes and rounds of sweet bread filled with colored eggs adorned the counter tops.

Last year our house was overflowing with homemade Easter Bread, as I was testing it to be featured in the Washington Post. I read the old post I wrote back then, with tears dripping from the corners of my eyes. How was that my life just one year ago?

Then there’s this picture I have of Virginia kneading the dough with Mikey. People constantly tell me she’s too young to be as deeply affected by his death as Isabella, and it’s infuriating. She may be barely four years old, but she’s not stupid. One day she had the most loving, caring, involved daddy, and then he disappeared as quickly as flipping a light switch.

As I type these words, I’m beckoned back to last April, the scents of my new kitchen filled with those from my past. There’s an Easter Bread in the oven, one I started way too late, since it’s now 11:36pm and I really should be sleeping. Below is a picture of Mikey and Virginia kneading the dough last year. I keep it in my phone, and she stares at it with a longing look, and ache in her heart.

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The bread in the oven right now posed a challenge. The ingredients were measured properly, the dough felt and tasted right, but something was off. Something was missing. I continued on, determined to see the recipe through. Afterall, I made more than half a dozen loaves in just one week last year. This was a tried and true, tested recipe. And yet on this night, my bread is a little mishapen, the bottom a littler darker than I prefer. It was finicky, but all was not lost. In the end it came together, baking up into a buttery, sweet ring of goodness. Perhaps it’s a metaphor of things to come.

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Italian Easter Bread

Makes one 12-inch ring (10 to 12 servings)

The dough needs to rise first for about 1 1/2 hours, and a second time for about 35 minutes, so make sure you plan accordingly. Wrapped in parchment paper, the bread will stay soft for 2 to 3 days. (If you added whole eggs for decoration, remove them and refrigerate; re-seat them before serving). Stale leftovers make a nice base for bread pudding; just scrape off any remaining nonpareils.

p.s. Normally I give metric measurements for everything, but realized I didn’t weigh my egg yolks here. I’ll add those in the next time I bake up a loaf, which hopefully will be in a couple of days.

p.p.s. If like me, you realize you ran out of lemon extract, just swap in freshly grated zest from one lemon and 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract. Oddly, enough, this mimics the flavor of the lemon extract.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the bowl

4 teaspoons (17 grams) active dry yeast

1 cup (250 ml) scalded regular or low-fat milk, cooled to 110 degrees

1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar

4 large egg yolks, plus 1 large egg white beaten with a splash of cold water

1 teaspoon (5 ml) lemon extract

6 cups (900 grams) flour

1 teaspoon (4 grams) kosher salt

4 to 6 large colorful eggs, for decoration (optional, see headnote)

1/4 cup simple syrup, for glazing (see note)

Multi-colored nonpareils, for garnish

Use a little butter to grease a deep glass mixing bowl.Combine the yeast and milk in a medium bowl. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes until it has dissolved.

Combine the 16 tablespoons of butter, the sugar, egg yolks and lemon extract in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment; beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes, until creamy. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add 5 cups (750 grams) of the flour, the salt and the milk-yeast mixture. Starting on the lowest speed, beat just long enough to form a soft dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

Switch to the dough hook; beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. The dough will be soft. Sprinkle a clean work surface with a 1/2 cup (75 grams) of the remaining flour. Transfer the dough to the surface; knead the dough to form a smooth, elastic ball. Place in the buttered bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm, draft-free area for about 1 1/2 hours, or until it has doubled in volume. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Turn the dough out onto a clean surface. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup (75 grams) of flour, and knead for 1 to 2 minutes so that flour is absorbed. Divide the dough into 3 equal balls; form each piece into a 20-inch long rope. Braid the ropes and shape into a circle. Tuck in the uncooked whole eggs into the braids now, if using (as many as will fit, to your taste). Transfer the ring of dough to the prepared baking sheet; cover loosely with a barely damp towel or plastic wrap. Let rise for about 35 minutes or until the ring has doubled in size.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Uncover the ring of dough. Brush the top of bread with the egg wash (being careful to avoid the eggs if you’ve added them to the braid), and bake for 33 to 37 minutes, until the bread is a deep golden brown. The internal temperature should read 185 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer the bread to wire rack to cool completely.

If desired, liberally brush the top of the bread with simple syrup, then immediately sprinkle with the nonpareils. The top will be sticky at first, but will set after a few hours.

Note: To make simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a slow rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof container and let cool to room temperature.

Comments

  • Hillary Davis (@MarcheDimanche): Such a beautiful story Jennifer. So much love. And the Easter Bread is just perfect. I want to make one now that you have posted this. As always, you are an inspiration.

  • Meggie Wallace: Looks so delicious and perfect for Easter!!! I will be very happy to make our family some new memories with this bread… and hot cross buns… and pie… GAH! everything looks so good right now!

  • gluttonforlife: I applaud your note of optimism. In the face of great adversity, we have nothing but faith, love and courage to help us move forward. May this season of renewal fill you with hope. xo

  • Melina: Italian Easter Bread is a tradition in my family as well. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  • Lorn: The photo of Virginia and Mikey is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing – what a beautiful memory to keep. Life is so unfair.

  • Jennie @themessybakerblog: This bread looks absolutely gorgeous. Enjoy your holiday.

  • Hilary: Beautiful recipie. Thank you for sharing.

  • April: Beautiful bread, but that picture is so very sweet of your husband and daughter making bread is so great. hugs to you all

  • smae: First time commenter…but what people say about your younger daughter encouraged me to say something…
    My mom lost her mom when my mom was only three or four and today in her mid-60’s she can say it affected her deeply. Her memories are a bit vague but pictures were few back then and videos were not at all – plus, the adults around her didn’t handle it as well as they might today and I don’t think encouraged much speaking of her mom.
    Incidentally, not that there was any doubt – but my mom turned into an extraordinary mom herself.
    Your girls are truly lucky to have you and will be thankfull that you honored their pain and grieving process and kept the memory of their dad close. Keep on!

  • Sarah Egeland: Hi Jennie,
    It’s really hard to read, as I can feel your sadness. My friend just lost her husband very suddenly too. She has a three year old, and is 7 months pregnant with their second. It’s all so heart breaking, and I can barely think of her without tearing up. I really feel connected to you and your story, and felt the need to type this for reasons unknown.

  • Dana B.: Of course it affects Virginia! Sometimes I just don’t get people. That is a super cute pic of her and Mikey. thx for the recipe! I’ve never made italian easter bread.

  • Nina: I can’t wait to make the Easter bread with my daughters.
    I sent you an email to your gmail account, I hope you receive it.

  • Stephanie: My father-in-law died when his son – my husband – was just days past his third birthday. I echo another comment about there being few photos, little video. His death has affected my husband profoundly his entire life. He treats every day as though it could be his last. He cherishes every memory shared, every artifact saved, every comparison made by people who knew his father and know the man my husband has become. He also has a close relationship – and shares many personality traits – with the man who helped raise him after his mother remarried.
    You do well to keep a record of your memories of Mikey as a husband and as a father. You also do well to keep on living your life, day by day.

  • Sarah R: that looks delicious! I hope it turning out ok is a sign of positive things to come for you.

  • amy: You know, some people are idiots.
    Thank you for sharing the memories and heart ache. When Passover is done with I want to try and make this bread. Sounds wonderful.

  • Tricia: What a really wonderful looking father and man. Such a loss just sucks.

  • Kristen: A beautiful and heart-tugging post Jennie. My mother lost her beloved grandmother when she was very young. My mom’s family lived in an old triple-decker house-turned-apartments and her grandmother lived on the floor below her and her parents. She spent all her time there in the kitchen with her grandmother, even eating lunch and dinner with her instead of her parents.(My great-grandmother was off-the-boat Italian, and apparently her cooking was no joke.) One day she too was just gone. Although I think this was the one person my mother truly connected to in her childhood, and her grief must have been overwhelming, I wanted you to know that instead of casting a dark shadow over her life, her memories of her grandmother still surround her like a warm blanket. It makes her happy to this day to talk about her and my mother is now 65. I am so sorry for the loss of a such wonderful father and husband. I hope the memories of him shine like a light for you and your girls all the years of your life. Enjoy your lovely and perfectly imperfect bread. Sprinkles make everything taste better.

  • Anusha: That is a beautiful picture of Mike and Virginia.

  • Stephanie: The Easter bread looks wonderful! I definately must try that for our Easter dinner.
    I don’t blame you for being angry that a few people think little ones are “too young” to comprehend the loss of a parent. I think in many ways it may be the more traumatic, because they don’t always have the ability to process that Daddy “went to heaven” or “has gone to be with…” They simply have to deal with a fact that someone they love was there one day and gone the next. There is perhaps a fear of “maybe I will disappear too”. Children’s fears are so individual and parents have to go with their gut in how to handle things. You strike me as a very smart and sensitive mom Jennie and I’m sure that you know your girls better than anyone and what they need to get through this terrible time. Our prayers are always with you all. Keep the pictures around you all for those precious memories to turn from tearful reminders to treasured moments.

  • Jan: I used to make amazing apple pies – they were a family tradition, and always came out beautifully. I could throw a pie together using a bunch of old apples and whatever was in the kitchen, and it still came together in effortless fashion.
    I stopped making pies when a dear loved one passed away. The memory of the pies will be forever associated with that family member.
    Two years ago I tried to make an apple pie, and followed my old recipe to the letter. It was mushy, the dough was short, and the pie was inedible. I tried again – same result. I tried *again* – same result. I now realize that the heart is an essential ingredient in any recipe, and it is hard to connect with the food when your heart is hurting.
    I will try to make a pie again one of these days, but perhaps I will enlist the help of my daughter and transfer the magic to her … and let her love the pie to life. I know that she will.

  • Diane: The photo of Virginia and Mikey is absolutely beautiful and of course she is affected I mean how could she not be her Daddy is gone!
    Every time you post a photo of Mikey you can just see in his handsome face what a loving caring family man he is.
    We all have to take one day at a time and make the most of every second as each one that we are all here to enjoy together is more special then the last!
    Many Hugs to you and the girls this Easter.

  • Elizabeth: I love the sprinkles on top!

  • Mikaela Cowles: I don’t think lossing someone ever gets easier. It just gets further and further away. Perhaps at some point the memories become more of a comfort and less of a pang, but who knows when that process begins. Regardless, keeping them in your life, especially with something you come into contact with roughly three times a day, is one of the best tributes I can think of. Particularly with something so delicious.
    You’re in my prayers. May your Easter be filled with renewed strength.

  • Carole K: God Bless You for sharing your heart and life with all of us. You are Loved.

  • Jen: That picture brought tears to my eyes. I can’t imagine growing up without the special bond of a father to his daughter. You have big shoes to fill but no doubt, you will do it with grace.

  • Dick Simpson: Homemade pasta is wonderful. A pasta maker has been on our list for a while and we might actually get to it someday soon.

  • Rocky Mountain Woman: My littlest granddaughter was only two when my son died. She doesn’t really remember him, but she feels the loss. I can see it in her eyes…
    good thoughts coming your way sweetie…

  • cj coppola: Jennie –
    I have never made nor eaten Easter Bread but I’d like to try to make it this year using your recipe. I have a dumb question – The eggs go in raw right? and then do you eat them or are they decorative?
    cj
    JP’s note: Not a silly question at all. Yes, they go in raw, and they come out hard boiled eggs that can be eaten. Happy Easter!

  • Gigi: Jennie – we don’t know each other but I feel like I can understand you. My mother in law lost her father as a 4 year old. She was heartbroken for years, but her mother was strong and open with her children about such a great loss. I have a 4 year old daughter and I can’t imagine saying that she wouldn’t be “as” affected as my older child should something happen to my husband, her father. It would be equally devastating. I think you’re doing what’s best for your girls, keeping it real. It’s important that they know how you’re feeling, even if it’s not all the time. No doubt, they will grow up knowing how wonderful their father was and with a great mother.

  • Robert Richards Recipes: Thanks for sharing this recipe. Now, I have to get to the store to get the ingredients!

  • claudia @whats cookin italian cuisine: lovely memories I know he is shining down feeling your love that is everlasting!

  • Alison: The bread looks beautiful, just like the story you share from a chapter in your life.

  • Tracey Alvernaz: Good Morning Jennie
    I hope your Easter was full of hope and some happiness.Hope your book will be coming out soon.
    Tracey

  • sarah: hi jennie! i made this bread yesterday for Easter and I just wanted to say thank-you. it was delicious (so much in fact that i almost ate half the loaf over the sink…) I have never commented your blog before but read have read every new post for the past year or so. i am getting married in a couple months to my ‘mikey’ and reading your blog has given me a new sense of appreciation and gratefulness for my wonderful and sweet life, thanks to some of your warm recipes you have shared with me. thanks, again, for writing here – I love reading.

  • Andrea: Thank you for sharing your life and thoughts and feelings. Sending hugs and prayers. Great recipe! I stayed up the night before Easter making it. I’m not much of a breadsmith, but it was very tasty and was much enjoyed at my family gathering. Thanks again for sharing!

  • Cheryl Arkison: People actually tell you that about Virginia? How callous. Of course it is intense and emotional for her. My Evil Genius is the same age as her and we noticed a huge impact on her when my Dad died ( a year ago tomorrow). She must even sense the anniversary because she’s been mentioning him of late. Big hugs to you.

  • robin: I wish you all still had him.

  • Elizabeth Zurlo: Thank you for sharing that beautiful picture with us. I lost my twin-brother & my sister 3 years ago. It is so hard, because they always enjoyed these recipes. I still make them; but its not the same. God give you strength. Blessings

  • Lily from It’s A Dome Life: I came here looking for Easter bread recipes and wondering how early I could make the bread. I am leaving completely moved by your story and the loss of your husband.

    Children are whole people. They have memories and feelings and thoughts about what goes on and about the people in their lives. Don’t listen to the people who tell you otherwise. They have just forgotten what it is like to be a child. You are right to recognize your daughters grief as real, because it is.

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